The geographical challenges were great, too; in the landlocked country, largely made up of desert sand, farming was virtually impossible.
“When we asked for independence, people thought we were either very brave or very foolish,” Mr. Masire was often quoted as saying.
They got to work. Mr. Masire and Mr. Khama formed the Botswana Democratic Party, and Mr. Masire became the first minister of finance and the first vice president.
About a year after Botswana became independent, the De Beers company made a mining discovery on the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert that gave the country the glittering hope it needed: diamonds.
But Mr. Masire and Mr. Khama saw to it that De Beers did not simply plunder Botswana’s resources, as many big companies had historically done in Africa. Instead, De Beers entered into a 50-50 joint venture with the government.
Today, diamonds are as synonymous with Botswana as cigars are with Cuba, accounting for more than 60 percent of the country’s exports.
Mr. Masire and Mr. Khama leveraged the newfound wealth to add schools, improve health care, build infrastructure and modernize farming. The development helped Botswana maintain stability through droughts and a slump in diamond prices in the 1980s. Tourism began to flourish, especially wildlife tourism.
Laura Alfaro, a professor at Harvard Business School who interviewed Mr. Masire in 2002 for a case study she co-wrote called “Botswana: A Diamond in the Rough,” said that unlike leaders who “want to build palaces and statues,” Mr. Masire said, “‘No, I’d rather build schools.’”
“It’s a simple country, but he was not ashamed of that,” she said.
Botswana achieved the highest annual economic growth rate in the world and reached middle-income status among nations globally. As surrounding countries struggled with violence and corruption, Botswana became a model, often referred to as “the African exception.”